Under the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God
New Hope for a Country in Social Havoc
About 50 people are lining up in front of the ground floor of an apartment block in one of the Sofia neighborhoods. It’s a misty and cold November afternoon and most of the people are women. They don’t talk much; the line is progressing slowly towards the entrance where each woman receives a small parcel containing a bottle of sunflower oil, a kilo of rice, flour and butter. This soup kitchen is one of the few in the 1.5 mln city of Sofia; there are even fewer in the country. It is established by the Pokrov foundation, an Orthodox laity organization which is trying to restore genuine parish life and diaconal service of the Orthodox Church in Bulgaria. The kitchen is helping the families of 90 Bulgarian children with chronic diseases, raised by single mothers or by parents with an income under the absolute poverty line.
‘Kamelia’, 31, one of the women in the line, quietly tells us her story. ‘My son was born with a heavy genetic disorder and has a severe mental handicap. The doctors say he will not live until 20. He is 8 now. My boyfriend left me as soon as he learned about our son’s disease. He tried to make me give my boy to a social institution but when I went there and saw what it was like I could not sleep for several nights. Children there were treated like animals; it was badly smelling of urine and the naked skinny kids were washed by the personnel from pipes. It made me think about the concentration camps in W.W.II. I don’t feel regret about my choice. But sometimes it gets so hard. Now I have to live with my elderly parents who are not very supportive.
I cannot work because the boy needs special care but I don’t get any welfare support. I can’t imagine what it would be like if I wasn’t getting food from this kitchen; it gives us the survival minimum. This is practical Christianity for me. When you struggle to survive it’s the simplest things that really matter’.
The Pokrov foundation, created in 1994 originally as a publishing and educational organization of the active Orthodox laity, is recently going through a serious re-evaluation of its mission in the society. Social diaconal work is more and more considered a most important aspect of the presence of the Church in the social life, and caring for the needy, an unconditional call and opportunity for Christian witness. Its soup kitchen project, together with projects oriented to some of the most needy orphanages in the country, constitute the foundations of a social diaconal program intended to grow and to demonstrate a new approach of the otherwise passive Orthodox laity to the pressing social needs. Apparently the economic hardships of the democratic transition call for such activity. But there is more to it than that. Bulgarians lived through a killing winter in 1996-1997. High death rates combined with low birth rates resulted in drastic decrease of the population. Political turmoil, corruption (Bulgaria ranks among the top ten most corrupted countries in the world), crime and economic decline have been the hallmarks of the Bulgarian ‘velvet revolution’.
In spite of the disastrous economic situation soup kitchens, day care centers and similar services are a rarity in Bulgaria. The agencies of the emerging nonprofit sector in the country still prefer to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on seminars and workshops on the theory and practices of democracy rather than to get involved in serious development and community service. The inertia of the ‘easy money’ still holds the sector back while the demand on behalf of Western donors is towards more long-term effects and sustainable growth. This factor, combined with recent investigations in the accounting of some major national NGOs suspected of corruption and financial mismanagement puts the sector in one of the last places in the
overall East European investments through non-governmental international funding.
The largest NGO with a still unexplored potential, the Orthodox Church, encompassing more than 80% of the nation, is going through what may be described as the deepest crisis in its 1100 years’ history, unknown even during the times of the Ottoman Empire. The depth of the crisis is comparable only with its absurdity; one would expect that after the democratic changes in 1989 the Church has gained a broad public support and has become the solid institution of faith proclaimed by the Constitution as the ‘traditional church of the nation’. On the contrary, the release of the national spirit, formerly subjected to strict atheist ideology, has found the Church unprepared to meet the public demand for a solid, yet comprehensible spiritual message. The current tendencies show that Christianity is becoming more and more marginal as the Church fails to be even the nominal and formal spiritual ‘home’ for the Bulgarians. Many reasons contribute to this continuing crisis. Political interests have controlled the Church for decades, designing it to be as obedient and inert as possible. Generations of priests, theologians and church officers have been closely monitored by the
State Security and any attempt or tendency towards revitalization or a pro-active approach has being blocked. The human potential of the Church has been carefully selected to create a negative image of Orthodox Christianity altogether while the most brilliant, resourceful and charismatic figures have simply been taken out from the system, normally through blunt force or threatening. This long lasting policy is bearing its bitter fruits today: the churches and the monasteries are empty, the priest’s profession is unattractive and misunderstood by the youth, the society is alienated from its national Church. Today’s political elite has not had the chance to get to know the Church and is using it for its political and (increasingly) economic interests. For example, while all the other major denominations have already restored their property nationalized by the communists in the 40-ies, the Orthodox Church has not even started the process. Its vast real estate assets are still used by the government; much of it is used by private companies and individuals. Restoring the whole property of the Church will inevitably interfere with a large variety of corporate interests and will make it an important economic factor with which any government would have to comply.
That is one of the main realities that brought about the famous ‘razkol’, or division within the Church which took place in the beginning of the 90-s. Inspired by purely pragmatic interests and carried out by a group of political figures, the division is still paralyzing the body of the Church much to the satisfaction of those who are interested in the permanent maintaining of the status quo that ensures their profit from the property belonging to the Church. It is evident that while the bishops and the priests are over-obsessed with the problem of the division and the ‘who’s-going-tobe- the-next-Patriarch’ issue, which is making of the Church ‘a walking wounded’, no development could be expected on behalf of the official leadership.
One of the most satanic successes of the communist government with respect to the Church is that it managed to break the connection between the nation and its Church, to the extent that today the Church is regarded as a vague institutional subject of discord between bishops but not as something which concerns everyone baptized in it. This broken sense of shared ownership has the potential to literally slowly kill the Church and pass on to the next generation an institution stripped and deprived of any real meaning and contents. One has to be very careful not to search for similarities with the secularized societies of the West where the Christian churches are also losing many of their faithful. In Bulgaria the process is much more radical and irreversible as whole generations have lost and continue to lose any opportunity to exercise a real free choice for or against religion. This choice is becoming more and more pre-determined and therefore, false. The new democratic government only re-affirms the old attitude using a different language. For the new political elite the Church is part of the national cultural heritage with no relation to the present whatsoever. It should be preserved because of high political reasons but any growth or development should be discouraged.
However, there are some signs of a process of breaking the ice in the relationships with the government. A major recent success of the Orthodox community has been the introduction of religious education in public schools. The drafting and the legislative process has provided valuable patterns of cooperation with the state. The main priority for the Church now is not to lose the momentum gained and to actively work for the overcoming of the division with the active support of the government.
What makes the situation particularly difficult, apart from the evident lack of all kinds of specialists in the Orthodox Church, is that the government of the Union of Democratic Forces and the Presidency maintain a somewhat ambivalent attitude towards the church crisis and the religious situation in general. On the one hand the ruling party manifests its liberal approach to the religious communities while on the other is under a heavy pressure and demand on behalf of the public for drastic measures against the cults which have scandalized Bulgarian society with frantic gatherings, cases of suicidal attempts (some successful) and an overall arrogant behavior. The government and the media often work with a quite broad definition of ‘cultic’, encompassing even some of the traditional Protestant communities which causes tensions between some of the more radical Evangelicals and the Orthodox. Towards the Orthodox Church, for more than a year the government has been following a separatist policy, openly supporting that fraction of bishops who provoked the division. Divide et impera is still a winning strategy, although the world community of canonical Orthodox churches has not recognized the pseudo-Patriarch Pimen, supported by the party in power, the UDF. This policy line should be comprehended in the framework of the spirit of breaking away with the past, pursued by the new elite. In practical terms this means a hostile policy towards Russia (causing dramatic decrease in the GDP because of lost Russian markets), massive pro-European propaganda on the lowest level often with no account of the national realities and frequent speculations about and associations between the non-Orthodox background of the West European nations and the welfare societies they have build. Orthodoxy is often depicted by public political figures as a backward factor pulling back the advance of the nation towards democracy and European values.
Paradoxically, the Orthodox are accused by other Christian groups of being too strongly and selectively supported by the government, a privilege which does not comply with constitutional provisions. And even though the real contents of that privilege is a small annual grant from the government for the Orthodox Church, insufficient to cover even basic needs, many Protestants believe that the Orthodox are enjoying special attention. An important detail: the budgets of some minority churches with a 5-10 000 membership are much greater than the budget of the majority Church which has a constituency of nearly 6 million people.
These are only some of the factors which form the complicated situation of the religious communities in Bulgaria. From a nondenominational Christian perspective most of the tendencies are frightening. Growing secularization of the society, little or no cooperation among the Christians and even tensions and conflicts among their leaders; a manipulative and hostile governmental policy, insufficient international support for the majority Orthodox Church which is expected to bring spiritual wholeness to the nation and to lead it into the 21st century as one of the peoples of God.
The fast change of values in the Bulgarian society and the radical introduction of consumativism and free market relationships did not leave time for the nation to work out a new community code to replace the old totalitarian ideology. The sense of community has been lost and with it, the sense of security and comfort. The big cities have become big bad neighborhoods where people do not feel safe for their lives any more. Bulgaria has become a home for international mafia, illegal activities of all sorts, violence and abuse. Sociologists already measure the level of decline of the family as the fabric of social life and the source of genuine community spirit. Democracy (and this has been a bitter discovery) has not been reproduced on a grassroots level and its absence there is making the political life seem absurd and naive.
Chaos not only kills
…But gives birth to new possibilities. The Spirit breathes wherever He pleases and God has shown new unexplored roads to His people. Today there is a growing conviction among the priests and the believers that if any change is possible, it can come only ‘from below’, from the laity. And with this new vision, a new hope for the troubled Church in Bulgaria. A lot of things have to be recalled from the past. Active parish life, community spirit, care for the needy have always been present in the Bulgarian Church until so fiercely eradicated fifty years ago. Diaconal work and active mission are probably the most challenging aspects of Bulgarian church life today. This brings forward the need for an adequate education and training, of political and ecclesiastical will to introduce a new style and a new thinking in an institution overwhelmed and overstaffed with elderly people.
The pebble in the shoe or the pebble that turns the cart upside down?
In 1994 a group of young people tried to answer a simple question: What’s wrong with our Church? All of them have been brought up in a non-religious environment and had found Orthodoxy after years of spiritual wandering. With a neophyte zeal they wanted to change everything overnight. They established a foundation, called Pokrov, the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God, a famous feast in the Orthodox calendar. Today, four years later the longing for a change is no less strong but the foundation is more concentrated on strategy issues than ever. An analytic approach to the Bulgarian society and its Church is involving different people in a dialogue designed to give the outlines of the reforms which everyone seems to be longing for.
Radio and TV interviews, numerous publications and events try to bring forward to the public attention fundamental issues never discussed before.
Where are the roots of the church crisis to be found? Is a new, radical and more spiritual approach to Bulgarian history and cultural heritage at all possible and what is the real religious identity of the nation? Can we perceive the dimensions of the vicious circle in our religious education, parish life and monasticism and how should we deal with it? The division in the Church: whose problem is it? How should the Church be provoked to renew its social mission? And, most importantly, how are we to relate to the other Christian communities? These are only few of the questions which are being discussed in student circles, among the intelligentsia and the laity in general.
Today the foundation is seen more as a catalyst tool for a number of new initiatives rather than an uniform provider of models for one-fold reforms in the Church. Movements and groups have chosen the Pokrov foundation as an administrative umbrella for their capacity growth. The foundation helped establish MartA, a new entity which is trying to promote Christian art. Two radio shows on the national network and one TV program is using the foundation’s volunteer network as the main source of information and expertise on
Orthodoxy and religious issues in general.
Non-Orthodox leaders of Christian denominations admit that a Christian renewal in Bulgaria can only come through the Orthodox Church which they no longer hesitate to call ‘The Mother Church’ and to build a vision of inter-Christian cooperation based on the laity movements centered around a common diaconal agenda. Orthodox laity participation in this process so far has involved organizations as St. Evtimie Youth Movement, the Orthodox Center for Church-State and Inter-church Relations and the Pokrov foundation. The Faculty of Theology in Veliko Turnovo has also played an important coordinating role in many events.
How does the Church leadership react to the new developments in the laity circles? A good indicator of their attitude is the reaction to the positive criticism they more and more often find in the publications of the laity organizations. It is interesting to compare the kind of criticism the bishops had been used to until very recently. Typical accusations of the secular media have been that members of the Holy Synod have collaborated with the communists and therefore they all should go; that the Church is doing nothing to stop the dangerous cults in the country and that a recently departed clairvoyant should be canonized as a
saint. The only analytical periodical of the Orthodox youth, the MIRNA magazine, published by the Pokrov foundation, is taking a totally different course of criticism which found many church leaders unprepared. Briefly formulated, its main messages are: 1. the church crisis is a matter of personal responsibility of everyone baptized Orthodox. 2. replacing the old bishops through revolutionary and anti-canonical means cannot be a solution to any problem in the Church. We are happy with the bishops we have but we want to see them doing concrete things. 3. The role of the laity movements should be growing and
should be actively supported by the bishops as the only possible peaceful way to overcome the crisis.
Warmly met by the majority of the younger priests, these simple yet stunningly new messages cause heated debates among the bishops. Some of them respond with a blessing; some are openly negative. But that has been a good outcome, after all: the dialogue within the Church has started. Or, has it?